On the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, I woke up in a small apartment in central Moscow. I had arrived only a few weeks before, elated to conduct archival research, meet new colleagues and see old friends.
But as soon as I saw the morning’s headlines, all my aspirations crumbled. Scenes of military helicopters launching missiles on Ukrainian airfields and downtown Kyiv seared themselves into my brain. I was far from alone in wondering how this could have happened – not out of naivety that Vladimir Putin held a shred of respect for Ukraine, but with a clear understanding that there was no endgame. Ukraine was – and remains – its own country inhabited by people who would risk everything to resist Russian imperialism. The new realities of war forced me to confront new challenges, a few of which I share here to shed light on some of the larger ramifications of this conflict as we mark its one-year anniversary.
Most immediately, I had to leave Russia. Within 48 hours of the initial invasion, I packed my bags, vacated my apartment and boarded a plane to Istanbul – one of the few international flights still available. My departure was easy and transitory, but for millions of Ukrainians and several hundred thousand Russians, displacement has become a way of life.
Thanks to ad hoc and relatively welcoming policies for wartime refugees, Ukrainians have found temporary residences primarily across Europe and the Americas. For very different reasons – opposition to their own government, threats of imprisonment and fear of being coerced into military service – some Russians, too, have joined the ranks of their own diasporas in Almaty and Amsterdam, Tbilisi and Tel Aviv. As the war continues to unfold, Ukrainian refugees will rely on allies’ "temporary" support systems while myriad short-term visa regimes will test anti-war Russians’ resourcefulness.
A deep, intractable uncertainty has haunted the 365 days that have now passed since the first February 24. My questions are professional and personal. What use are nuanced histories of a Russia that only confirms the worst stereotypes of its own brutality and thuggishness? How do I process my feelings of betrayal by people whom I know to be better than this? While facing far more dire uncertainties in their own lives, Ukrainians, Russians and everyone entangled in this horrid mess also face broader questions. How long can this war of attrition and mass destruction continue? What will finally bring an end to the war – irresolution from Ukraine’s allies, a violent and chaotic coup in Russia or some as yet unseeable alternative? And, depending on the resolution of this conflict, how will Ukrainians and Russians rebuild themselves, their countries and their futures?
As we commemorate the first of potentially several February 24ths, I do not offer any concrete answers to these questions. Still, I remind readers that it is absolutely vital we remain committed – in spirit and practice – to supporting Ukraine and Ukrainians, opposing Russian violence and working together to build a brighter, more livable future.
– Luke Jeske, PhD Candidate
Department of History, UNC-Chapel Hill